Four meditations on lines by T.S. Eliot: part I

CHORUS:

…King rules or barons rule; we have suffered various oppression, but mostly we are left to our own devices, and we are content if we are left alone.

We try to keep our households in order; the merchant, sly and cautious, tries to compile a little fortune, and the labourer bends to his piece of earth, earth colour, his own colour, preferring to pass unobserved.

Now I fear disturbance of the quiet seasons: winter shall come bringing death from the sea, ruinous spring shall beat at our doors, root and shoot shall eat at our eyes and our ears, disastrous summer burn up the beds of our streams and the poor shall wait for another decaying October.

Murder in the cathedral: part I.  T.S. Eliot

 

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Vast works of other ages encumber

Stse is an almost-island, separated from the mainland of the great south continent by marshes and tidal bogs, where millions of wading birds gather to mate and nest.  Ruins of an enormous bridge are visible on the landward side, and another half-sunk fragment of ruin is the basis of the town’s pier and breakwater. Vast works of other ages encumber all Hain, and are no more and no less venerable or interesting to the Hainish than the rest of the landscape.

Ursula K le Guin, Four Ways to Forgiveness, Gollancz 1995.

Le Guin’s galaxy was long ago colonised by humans from Hain.  Indeed this is so buried in history’s layers that humanity’s first origins are forgotten, and people on Earth believe themselves aliens.  After that great expansion and genetic manipulations by the ancestral Hainish, peoples in each system developed in isolation for a thousand millenia.  Time dilation during near-light-speed travel and cold-sleep means that your left-behind children and grandchildren grow old and die before you make your new start on another planet.  In the last few thousand years, which might be only a few lifetimes for space-farers, the Hains have sought to bring all humanity back into a loose community called the Ekumen.

This positioned le Guin as a galactic social anthropologist.  The underlying framework for each story is that of Ekumen observers exploring and falling foul of variations of kinship, politics, religion and economics.  Her most recurring themes are variations on gender and sex, and the power relationships which spring from these.  The Left Hand of Darkness, her novel written nearly fifty years ago, to me seems fresh and challenging in its deconstruction of our assumptions about humanity, encapsulated in the sentence “The king was pregnant”.  The four novellas which comprise Four Ways to Forgiveness offer perhaps a more conventional take on sexuality, shockingly so, for it is tied into power dynamics, slavery, rape and oppression.  It took me a second reading to confirm that her gentle writing style was, in each narrative, capturing a love-story.

The throw-away description of the enormous bridge, the ancient vast ruin present but ignored, gives to me the feel of le Guin’s universe.

I drew this listening to the hypnotic rhythms of Canto Ostinato (Simeon ten Holt) weaving a tapestry of sound from four pianos.

Why had people bothered to build a bridge when there were boats and flyers to ride?

The quote is from Ursula K Le Guin, ” A Man of the People”, the third of four novellas that comprise Four Ways to Forgiveness.

Having sketched this quickly, I now see her iconic bridge is different in scale, described as enormous, reaching far above a landscape of tidal pools inhabited by myriad wading birds, descended originally from those brought from Earth.

It is old, maybe a million years.   So, I guess, it was built across a long-changed landscape, and likely by machines and labour controlled by strident imperialists, alien to the contemporary pueblo-dwellers with production divided by gender, lineage and tradition.

The difficulty of crossing a field

2016-03-09 The dfficulty of crossing .. (1)

Ambrose Bierce’s admirably concise narrative tells of a man, Williamson, rising to walk to the distant pasture to speak on a particular matter with Andrew, his brother, the overseer, there supervising a dozen slaves; crossing a close-cropped field, level and without any means of concealment, and disappearing such that no person hears of or sees him again, so that he is declared dead and his estate is distributed according to the law.  The sole testimony is from a neighbour, Wren, who saw both Williamson’s presence and then, immediately after, his absence  but who was distracted at the moment of disappearance.  The woman, Williamson’s wife, black servant Sam and boy, Wren’s son, who were each greatly disturbed by the actual event, were deemed incompetent.  What had become of Mr Williamson?  Bierce states clearly, it was not the business of this narrative to answer that question.   The central event itself  is not examined and the reader is left to fill in the details.

2016-03-09 The dfficulty of crossing .. (3)

I came to this story though David Lang’s opera of the same name, a chance finding on Spotify.   Listening to this several times without any idea of its cast or staging nor the story or setting, the sense came to me of the neuroticism of oppression: that the act of oppression was driving the white folks mad and that myth and superstition were interwoven with horror and despair.

Mac Wellman’s libretto expands the original story to some 18 pages, seeing the events from the perspectives of the different actors,yet without resolving Bierce’s central question.

2016-03-09 The dfficulty of crossing .. (4)

At the heart of the piece is the tightly self-constrained testimony of Andrew, the overseer, explaining his principles of managing slaves and maintaining self respect, which collapses into anger and rhythmic evocative nonsense: “His name was Clock, of the tribe of Clock.  But I fear his true mode of locomotion, like that of Prince Zandor, was more humble, the singleton crutch, or cane, of the tribe of Crutch, or Cane”.  Andrew clarifies that seemingly random shouted words were the attributes, or names, of the slaves working in that distant field: Round, Square, Juniper, Crabgrass, Candlestick, Limbo, Clock, Bumblebee, Jackass, Crawdad, Nuisance, Puissance, Doorbell, Virginia Creeper.  The slaves are the chorus and Virginia Creeper their caller.  The overseer’s words become but an echo of the chorus’ ritual chanting: they are building a nation, seeking an erasure of John C. Calhoun (who promulgated that slavery was more than a “necessary evil” but was a social good) and invoking Prince Zandor, the one-legged red-coated predatory demon from their ancestral mythology.

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Wildcode

Wildcode

I have enrolled again for Experimental Drawing classes at the Midlands Arts Centre.

We start from basics, over two sessions making marks with charcoal, then an eraser, smoothing over the depths and highlights by abrasion and water, building in new layers: finding a picture in the unplanned image.  I know this stuff but I never do it.  Coming straight after work and despite a grabbed sandwich and beer on the way, I find it hard to unwind and let go. Still, it is great to have the space and time and permission to play with marks.  It is like rediscovery.

The headline piece has been digitally manipulated, altering the brightness and contrast a little, but particularly, boosting the red channel.  The original is below,  actually drawn the other way up.  When I can get the original back, I will wash over it in layers of sepia ink and see where this leads.

three sheets 1

As I worked, my fleeting ideas included making calligraphic marks like a script, masts and rigging of tall ships and sunight breaking through foliage overhead.   Once I turned it upside down, this came immediately to mind:

“I helped her see patterns in the desert, in the wind, in the wildcode.  We found treasures.  There are ghosts beneath the earth, you can dig them up if you know where to look.”

This is perhaps as close as we come to an explanation of the desert or the nature of wildcode in Hannu Rajaniemi’s novel, The Fractal Prince.  In so far as I could tell, beneath the layers of  quantum physics, wildcode relates to our core canon of stories which truly come alive when our flesh and digital natures converge.

Biting the paper IV: sylvan idyll.

I pay a yearly subscription for access to a private nature reserve.  Here there is a small wooded hill, largely ignored by the twitchers who congregate at the hides facing the flooded gravel pits.  I am self-conscious painting in company whereas this secluded wood is free of children, walkers and dogs.  This allows me to spend time just looking and experimenting in paint.

Siden Hill Wood - March (5)

I painted this in March, weather shifting between drizzle and sleet, a dry-run perhaps before my sketches in the Yorkshire Dales later that week.  At the top of the ridge, weak sunlight through the trees gave a luminous quality to the lichen covered fallen logs.  My painting had elements I liked, but the woodland floor was over-painted and dull (the digital image flatters the actual painting by being back-lit on your screen).  This weekend, I scraped it back with a knife, re-painted a single layer of green over the refreshed paper and brought more reds into adjacent areas for contrast.

Siden Hill Wood - March

Minds play tricks and odd thought pathways become ingrained.  Each time I cut into paintings in this way, an ugly little phrase recurs in my mind: “It has been knife work up here”, a comment by the Elf Legolas in the Lord of the Rings as he reports his tally of slain orcs.  I find I have  sympathy for the orcs, represented as a caricature of and metaphor for the industrial working class, invading and despoiling the rural idyll, mobs marshaled by elites and slain in their thousands.